Even after only a short time in Saigon, many people realise that if you want to experience all that the city has to offer, you have to turn your gaze away from street level and look up. The searing heat, thick humidity, constant noise and ‘unique’ driving style of many residents makes walking the city sidewalks an experience that is both exhilarating and nerve wracking. Thankfully, hidden spaces that can be found just a few meters above the ground provide a welcome escape from the chaos.
Entering Centec Tower, located on Nguyen Thi Minh Khai Street in District 3, the immaculately polished ground floor gives the impression of an exclusively professional space, and indeed the ground floor houses a bank or two. However, a swift elevator ride up to the 23rd floor will transport you far from the hustle and bustle of Ho Chi Minh City. Here you’ll find Shri Restaurant and Lounge, one of Saigon’s longest serving establishments, offering rooftop dining.
Far from the bright and polished marble of the tower’s foyer, Shri welcomes customers with a sumptuous and seductive atmosphere that hints at the treats it holds in store. To the right, a stylish bar area full of dark wood and moody lighting, evokes images of a bygone era, when cigars were smoked after dinner and leather-bound books provided the backdrop for sophisticated conversation. To the left, the indoor dining space provides sociable booth seating for larger groups and intimate tables for those seeking a more romantic setting.
However, the real highlight of Shri’s ‘décor’ are the spectacular views from the beautiful rooftop terrace. Looking out at the glittering skyline of downtown Saigon, breathing in the very welcome fresh air, the manic city sidewalk feels much further away than 23 floors. If it’s an escape from the city that you are looking for, Shri may just be the perfect place.
Sky high standards
When it first opened in 2010, Shri established itself as an international standard dining venue. As the city fast developed, many others have followed in Shri’s footsteps. From the growing competition, the challenge has been to maintain the core concept of providing high quality food and service, without losing the innovative, creative character that was integral to the original vision.
At present, this challenge falls to Shri’s General Manager, Thomas Gillgren, and it’s a challenge he is meeting with gusto. With promises of combining art and music, fabulous food, wine and cocktails, Thomas is aiming to provide extraordinary experiences for patrons of Shri. I met with him and two members of his team, Mr Binh and Miss Ngoc, to hear about one of their current innovations, the Shri Wine Experience, and how it is ensuring that Shri still demands a place on the list of must-visit venues in Ho Chi Minh City, even after almost a decade of service.
I start by asking Thomas about how the Shri Wine Experience came about, but he is keen to highlight that this is a continuation of Shri’s history rather than a ‘new’ concept. “We have to look back on what Shri was (to understand) what it is today,” Thomas says. He quickly explains that even in the early days, Shri built a reputation for being a popular destination for wine drinkers. At that time, customers were primarily expats and government members and popular choices from the wine list were usually Bordeaux and Chardonnay. However, Shri has always been willing to make suggestions for those eager to try something new. Mr Binh, who has worked at Shri since it opened and is the current sommelier, agrees, remembering that even then, building a reputation for providing fine wines was a priority.
“The very first general manager was always trying new wines to recommend to our customers” he remembers, smiling, for it was this that started him on the road to his current career. “Sometimes, (the general manager) would try a wine and call me over to join him. He would talk to me about the wine and the reasons (for its taste), that’s why I like it now”.
“Shri has always had a strong food and wine programme and the wine cellar was built up by the first General manager” continues Thomas. “However, with the changes throughout the years, I wanted to rebuild and reposition the wine experience that you can get here.” Ultimately, Thomas says his goal is to “have the best variety of wines that customers can get.”
The Shri Wine Experience
Luckily, for wine drinkers of Saigon, it appears that Thomas is a man of his word. With around 340 wines currently on the wine list, he is confident that Shri offers the largest selection of wine in the city. “There are other places in Saigon that have great cellars” he says, “but they usually concentrate on one type of wine, like Bordeaux, or wines from France. If it’s an Argentinian (restaurant), they concentrate on the Malbec or expressions of that, but because we have fourteen or fifteen wine suppliers, we have a larger variety than other restaurants.” And that variety is only set to increase when Thomas and his team launch the second edition of the Shri Wine Experience wine list at the end of September 2019. “There’ll be another thirty, or forty wines on the menu,” he says. However, for Thomas and his team an extensive wine list is only part of the vision for the Shri Wine Experience...
...“We want it to be accessible for people to try new wines” says Thomas earnestly, “We don’t want people to be afraid of tasting wines”...
Miss Ngoc, is quick to agree, “We want people to feel comfortable,” she says, explaining that this has been integral to her own experience in developing a love for wine. “In the past, wine was quite disgusting for me... but the former wine steward at Shri would always let me try something new, he let me try some good wines. Because of that period my (opinions) started to change and I got a different perspective about wine. Now, I’m into Italian wine. I like the spiciness inside their wine, which is in every bottle” she says, with the confidence of a seasoned connoisseur.
As the team speak about their work and the development of the Shri Wine Experience, their passion for the project it clear to see, in fact, it’s contagious. I find myself smiling as the team tell me about their plans. I admit, I have very limited experience within the wine world, but at no point do I feel intimidated at Shri. I ask Thomas what I could expect as a customer looking to develop my wine knowledge...
...“We’re not just trying to please the connoisseurs, we’re trying to introduce people to a pleasant wine experience. What we want to do is balance the wine list so that people have the chance to try different expressions of the same grape, but from different areas. We want people to maybe try a Malbec from France, where the original Malbec is from, and compare it to an Argentinian Malbec”...
This novel idea of using customer’s personal experience to provide a starting point for their journey into the world of wine, has proven to be a popular way to assist customers in expanding their palette. By creating special menus highlighting wines from the same grape variety but different regions, the team at Shri have succeeded in making the whole experience more accessible.
It has taken almost 18 months to develop the Shri Wine Experience to its current form. Whilst the development of the mid segment of the wine list has certainly been a priority, Thomas and his team also remember to keep their more experienced customers happy. “We’re working on a special wine menu which is a little bit more exclusive” says Thomas. “It would be for people who are really experienced in wines.” He explains that these so called ‘big’ wines, may carry a larger price tag, but would be taken from a selection of what he would class as the best wines in the world.
With the rapid developments in Saigon’s food and beverage industry, it seems that the number of customers who are interested in such an exclusive list may be much larger than anyone would have expected when Shri first opened 9 years ago. Drawing on his experience of running bars all over the world, Thomas is able to draw similarities between the current trends in Vietnam and other international destinations…
...“Saigon is positioning itself as a more international city, in the same way as Singapore, Hong Kong and Tokyo have for a long time. I’ve seen it in Dubai, Indonesia and London too, in 2019 the knowledge about wines is expanding among the clients that we have. The new hospitality industry demands more”...
Consequently, as the Shri team has expanded the wine list, they have also attracted a broader range of customers. Miss Ngoc explains that this is because the younger generation of Saigoneers, of which she is a member, are looking for new experiences.
“Now when we go to a restaurant, we look to more complicated drinks, like cocktails or wine. Since 2015, (we’ve had) more exposure to different categories of drinks and now we seek more options. The number of young people who know about wine is increasing and keeps developing.”
Mr Binh agrees that the younger people of the city are keen to learn, “A few years ago when I was talking about wine, I’d talk about Cabernet Sauvignon and my friends would just say ‘What is Cabernet Sauvignon?’ Now they come here and ask ‘where’s the wine list?’ or ‘do you have a recommendation?’ Now it is fashionable to know.”
A quick look at the galleries from recent Shri events, certainly suggests that Saigon’s young and beautiful are enjoying the experiences on offer at Shri, but Thomas assures me that there is something for everyone on the rooftop.
“We have too many ideas!” he says with a laugh. “We want to update our offers for all of our customers. It could be a tasting, an exclusive dinner, a food experience… it just takes a while to execute them!’ With so many ideas, Thomas doesn’t divulge too many details but he does let me know that something special is being planned. However, for now, details are being kept under wraps. “We are all very excited about it, but I can’t say more just yet” he says, elusively. Miss Ngoc, also gives little away, but does manage to add “It’s going to be epic!” with an excited nod and a knowing smile.
Again, the enthusiasm of the team is infectious, and Thomas is quick to share the credit for the success of the Shri Wine Experience. “It was a blessing to meet these two people here. From working all over the world and working with Sommeliers and high-end establishments, I was happy to see that there was a genuine interest in wines from my staff. For a restaurant, that is so important. Food and wine are the pairing. To discover the genuine interest for wines was (not just) among our customers … we have been lucky.”
As we end the interview, I suspect that what Thomas refers to as ‘luck’ is actually a combination of hard work and passion to provide that ever elusive ‘extraordinary’ experience. And having heard more about what they have planned at Shri in the near future, it seems that it may be closer than you think. Just 23 floors away, in fact.